Bristol City ticket price rises: where’s the engagement now?

**Update at 15:00 on 03/03/2018** Bristol City has reversed its decision, issuing this statement: https://www.bcfc.co.uk/news/update-on-201819-season-cards 

It would be churlish to suggest that this isn’t good, but the problem I have with this statement is that there’s no reference to the fact that they got it wrong, and no apology for failing to consult properly. I don’t think that goes any way to solve the problem that I outline below:

I’m always looking out for ways where structured dialogue and better communications can work in practical ways.

One of those is the often controversial area of ticketing. Personally speaking, I don’t oppose ticket price rises, and I don’t have a de-facto position on the cost of away tickets, for example. I think what The FSF do in campaigning to lower them is a good thing, inasmuch as football can’t simply keep forcing prices up. But the economics of football in England are such that you can’t simply pay full-time players wages, particularly at League One and Two level, with a mirage of money from broadcasters and sponsors that simply doesn’t exist in the quantity it does in the Premier League. That’s not fair on those who actually own and run clubs, and I can see has the potential to create pressure on them to make cuts in ticket prices they can’t afford if they want to compete on the pitch. And there isn’t the money for the kind of away fans fund that the PL provide either. I wrote about this in a post a while back, ‘Twenty Isn’t Plenty in the EFL

Nonetheless, ticket price rises are a sensitive area and you might expect clubs – particularly high-profile ones in the Championship – to realise this, and to operate accordingly. So it’s with a little surprise that Bristol City have announced their ticket prices for next season, which see a near seven-fold increase of the cost of tickets for children, from £50 to £335 in some areas. Quite incredible.

The Bristol City Supporters Club and Trust say in a fairly hard-hitting statement (which in my experience, groups like theirs tend to eschew unless it’s completely necessary), that ‘Whilst we were not consulted in this instance, FAN (the Fan Advisory Network, set up as a kind of ‘fans parliament’) was asked for opinions in January but not given the opportunity to offer any feedback on the proposed pricing structure before it was announced yesterday.’

I’m not going to use words like ‘astonishing’ to describe the straightforward failure of whoever’s responsibility it was to talk through an issue like this, because I’m not astonished: clubs do this far too often. Perhaps it was a board of directors decision that had to be implemented: I can’t offer up an explanation because I don’t know the circumstances of the decision. What I would say is that for a club that, outwardly at least have appeared to be well run and thoughtful in a number of areas (their backing of Head Coach Lee Johnson during difficult times was impressive, and should be a lesson to others), this is a completely avoidable dropped ball.

As I said at the start, I’m fairly agnostic on price rises: it depends on the circumstances entirely. There’s no need for a race to the bottom to replace the race to the top. But to introduce the kind of pricing structure that got Hull City and the Allams in hot water is surely the very definition of avoidable.

My advice, for what it’s worth?

  1. Consult. If you need to change the pricing structure, talk about it with your ‘FAN’, your ‘parliament’, or whatever group you use for the purpose. Fans aren’t as a group incapable of dealing with an issue like this, and you’ll make life a lot easier if you do. If you don’t have one, and you don’t know where to start, I’d be happy to help advise you. But don’t make it look like you’re forcing something through (the new tickets go on sale on Monday!) that you know will cause a backlash. And if you don’t know if it will, that’s the point about consultation!
  2. Secondly, make sure you’ve got someone in the top-tiers of management or advising the board, who can counsel and advise on areas like this. Plenty of companies do it all the time, and football clubs having that kind of voice helps. It’s what Public Relations is positions itself to provide.

These kinds of incidents are the very thing that leads to fans getting suspicious, angry, and the worst thing? It starts to unpick the hard work done to build relations up in the first place, and makes your ‘dialogue’ or ‘fan engagement’ look a bit tatty. And by the way, it’s not just football: Companies the world over struggle with how to deal with their ‘stakeholders’, ‘customers’ or whatever they might be termed. This report on ‘institutional listening’ by Jim Macnamara from the University of Technology Sydney is a great reassurance to everyone grappling with the issue, and should be read by everyone in football).

If you want to know more, including how I can help in communicating effectively with your fanbase, or setting up and running effective structured dialogue, why not drop me a line?

Image thanks to Joe Maggs, and reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Talk isn’t cheap: My advice to Blackpool fans and The EFL

Blackpool. There are almost no words to describe the absolute mess at the League One club. If you want to get your heads around what’s happening, I’d suggest first reading this piece from Dave Conn: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/feb/27/curious-case-blackpool-versus-football-league-ownership-rules – who also followed the trial involving Valerie Belokon and Karl and Owen Oyston. Read anything else he’s written on it as well. As usual he’s been the observer for all of us, of this car crash, as he has so many others (try his second book, ‘The Beautiful Game: Searching for the Soul of Football’ as an introduction to the football world of the early 2000s that I and others like me worked in.)

Today The EFL has announced that CEO Shaun Harvey will meet with the various supporters’ groups to discuss the issues. I’m not privy as to whether or not public pressure from the various supporters’ groups has played a part here, but it’s good that the meeting is happening.

The EFL does have a role in explaining how the rules work and why – especially in a set of circumstances like these, where the ownership and running of the actual member club itself seems to have internally combusted. In my all too familiar experience of these circumstances, fans are confused, upset, angry, and genuinely concerned about the actual future survival of their football club. It’s visceral, and it’s personal.

Whilst words themselves won’t stop that, the act of meeting, of communicating, does provide some reassurance that their concerns are being listened to and treated seriously. And over time, these sorts of relationships have absolutely had an impact on the EFL’s  and stance. They couldn’t fail to.

I remember a study I had commissioned for Supporters Direct that showed that by sheer number alone, the rules on finance and ownership in The League had gone from one solitary rule in 2002 relating to the payment of some fee or other, to a myriad of rules concerning financial practice and probity – not to mention on the moving of clubs and other assorted issues related to the actions of owners and officials. And then there’s the much criticised Owners and Directors Test which whilst imperfect, didn’t exist before 2004 in any form, meaning that someone, sitting in a prison, could literally own a football club. Read that slowly. Yes: A prison.

Whether we like it or not, the rules are written as they are. There may be a way around it – a loophole. It might take a legal action to change Belokon’s position as a currently barred director under the rules, but these are the facts, and they can’t be changed by the act of demanding that they change. The long, grinding saga at Coventry alone surely demonstrates that.

You can criticise football for allowing clubs ‘mark their own homework’, but that is football in England. I’m not keen on it, and campaigned myself with others to try to change it. I believe it would still be fairer on clubs alone to remove this heavy responsibility, focus on playing, and have a more arms-length form of regulation the like of which Supporters Direct and The FSF argued for over the years.

I have very often advised supporters and their representatives, governing bodies and clubs in these sorts of circumstances, and for what it’s worth, this is my take:

To The EFL: it’s good you’ve extended an invitation to meet to all the various groups. You’re somewhat stuck between a rock and a hard place, but communication is king in these circumstances. In professional parlance, it’s good ‘stakeholder management’. It also makes you more human to people used to viewing you either as an irrelevance, or as a shadowy group of people intent on ruining their matchdays.

To the fans and especially their representatives: You need to campaign, to lead and to bring people together and use their anger constructively, but as much as you can, try to understand the position of The EFL in this: it is one of those seemingly impossible situations where a solution looks impossible to reach, but where everyone knows it can’t continue. It’s clear that the rules are effectively preventing that solution. But like as not, I’m certain The EFL don’t want this.

To both: Keep on talking, build up the relationships, try to understand each others’ position, point of view. It alone doesn’t solve the problem, but it focuses everyone’s attention on the real issues. It removes the clutter.

If you want to know more, including how I can help in communicating effectively with your fanbase, or setting up and running effective structured dialogue, why not drop me a line?

The London Football Exchange: It’s disruption, not ‘democracy’

The grandly titled ‘London Football Exchange’ (LFE) has launched, positioning itself even more grandly as ‘Democratising Football through the Blockchain.’

For those who don’t know (and I have a very basic understanding myself), the Blockchain ‘allows market participants to keep track of digital currency transactions without central recordkeeping.’ (If you want to read more, you can on the magnificent Investopedia website: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/blockchain.asp). It’s part of a disruptive technology, the ‘back end’ if you like, of Digital Currency (this is also known as ‘Crypto’ or ‘Virtual’ Currency – like Bitcoin, for which the Blockchain was essentially created. More here: https://www.techopedia.com/definition/6702/digital-currency).

The essence of the LFE appears to be to create a sort digital virtual world for football products and services, where digital currency is used to buy and invest in things. From my reading, this will disrupt existing processes & suppliers that football clubs use, providing the ability for supporters of clubs to seek better value in their ticketing and merchandising purchases, and ‘experiences’ relating to their clubs – player interaction, and the more ‘customer-focused’ areas of Fan Engagement.

I won’t pretend to be expert enough to critically analyse some of the more technical aspects as deeply as they might deserve – this article in Forbes does it well enough: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogeraitken/2018/01/29/exchange-launching-soccer-related-cryptocurrency-in-world-first-using-ripple-network/#1eb828776da2 The idea of disruption is nothing new; taxis and takeaways are two of the most famous examples. The old media landscape has been virtually laid waste to because of technology.

‘Employing Jock Stein’s famous maxim, ‘Football without fans is nothing’ to promote a loyalty points scheme is pretty cynical’

But as someone who helped bring to the public consciousness terms in football like ‘engagement’, and the importance of meaningful relationships between fans and their clubs, I’m interested in the sort of language used by the LFE to describe what it’s proposing. What I recognise, as a result of also studying PR, is the use of words and phrases that intentionally convey a certain idea as a gateway to something else almost entirely. Football is a pretty prime target for this sort of thing, precisely because of its meaning to us, and the language we use to talk about the game.

For example, LFE uses the term like ‘Democratising’, when what they actually seem to mean is disrupting the market. Or they talk about ‘A global movement to create the ultimate sport community’, when a movement isn’t set up from the top and financed by, I presume, some kind of equity or finance raising mechanism, but comes from people and has nothing directly to do with money. Or employing Jock Stein’s famous maxim, ‘Football without fans is nothing’ to promote a loyalty points scheme (which is pretty cynical). Or saying that it can become a vehicle for greater involvement in the ownership of shares in football clubs by fans, which anyway looks a bit like an after-thought, and rather like a repackaged attempt at PLCs in football – which failed fairly miserably for all sorts of reasons I won’t go into now.

It excites me to see new ideas and concepts challenging old thinking. What makes me groan is when I see needless puff like this, which is unnecessary, and somewhat misrepresents what the actual idea is about. If anything, I’d say it actually distracts from the idea itself.

Buyer beware! How to solve the crisis at Sunderland (and other clubs besides)

Sunderland is all at sea. I don’t need to add to the reams of writing about Ellis Short and the demise of his interest in the club. It’s a sad sight for any team to be bottom of a division largely on the basis, it seems to me, that it’s all gone bad behind the scenes. Even in a less than imperfect World, football should always be about what happens on the pitch.

The problem for everyone involved is, I’m sure, helplessness. I’ve advised enough people during protracted takeovers and crises to know that fans, the staff (often a forgotten bunch) and yes, players, feel the tension. They wouldn’t be human otherwise. And it’s all well and good pretending that the downward spiral isn’t a reality, but it all too often is. And managers – in this case Chris Coleman – can only hold things together for so long. They’re people, and have a limit to their tolerance. They’re there to manage, not to lead the club, Moses like, out of the desert.

So what’s the future at Sunderland? Your guess is as good as mine, which is part of the problem. But there are some important considerations for anyone thinking about a takeover – there, or anywhere else.

1. Look for those in the know

One of the big problems that still happens with new owners is that – understandably – they come in, full of optimism, ideas, and a ‘new’ approach, and forget that the optimistic tone can quickly change when results or promised changes don’t materialise. It’s too easy to come in and promise that a new broom will sweep things clean. What you need is to have a plan to pull together the club in all its facets as it is, not as you want it to be. On the staff side, every club always has one or two people who are the constant. At Luton Town it was Cherry Newbery (seen most famously in this brilliant and quite disturbing at times, documentary about the brief reign of John Gurney). Very often it’s often the (football) secretary – the one who makes the football side tick, knows the business, and ensures that the club complies with the rules – who knows a lot of what’s going on. Seek these people out, and bring them in – they matter, and they’ll give you the lowdown and greater credibility.

2. Treat the fans like grown ups – but don’t treat them all the same

When you’ve just taken over, there’s a tendency to issue a series of reassurances to supporters, and then forget that they – ‘they’ very often being the activists who have campaigned on the problems under the former owner – need to remain involved in some way, and are also a valuable potential source of intelligence. Many new owners throw all the fans together in a big mix, and some even force groups to justify their existence. I remember a particular instance, not long after a club had exited administration, where I received emails from the Chief Executive, investigating how many members the supporters’ trust had, which I knew was on the basis that the intention was to exclude them for not being ‘representative enough’. And that wasn’t an uncommon tale. That either creates enemies, or makes you look petty. Don’t do it. It doesn’t mean you have to have the same type of relationship with every group. It does mean that you should work with the various groups – and individual fans – as you would stakeholders in any other business, but remembering that they won’t be taking their business anywhere else. All the best club CEOs do it that way.

3. Don’t over promise. You’ll always under-deliver

Fans can be a fickle bunch, but more’s the point, fans are not homogeneous. They are united by their love of a club, but as Millwall CEO Steve Kavanagh says, “It’s a sport where two people watching the same game can emerge with a completely different view of what happened.” Strategists like me can bore everyone silly with their droning on about taking a step back and thinking through the problem, but do it. I can’t promise you won’t avoid errors, but you’ll find fewer will occur if you think through things in a strategic way, e.g.: what type of football club are you intending on/have you just taken over (there are all sorts)? Who cares about this football club and why? What is it they want? How can you help them learn to trust what you do and say?

If you want to know more, including how I can help in communicating effectively with your fanbase, or setting up and running effective structured dialogue, why not drop me a line?

The image attached to this article was originally posted to Flickr by Mrs Logic at https://www.flickr.com/photos/29376648@N05/4868747893

Knowing when to stop: Lessons for clubs and supporters’ groups in Structured Dialogue

This follows on from a recent piece I wrote about dealing with the often very ‘political’ nature of organised supporters’ groups. The jumping-off point is a very public dispute, the latest in a series, between Hull City supporters and the club, which was played out in a recent series of articles in the Hull Daily Mail, and other local media.

The disagreement centres around the supporters’ committee meetings established by the club to attempt to build bridges between the club and supporters after a long period of strained relationships, and the club calling off the latest following public comment by one group.

Much of the original strain between club and supporters’ emanates from the attempt by Chairman and owner Assem Allam to change the official name of the football club to Hull City Tigers in 2013, and the campaign from the supporters to oppose it. Ultimately, nothing changed, but the relationships have been seriously damaged ever since. The club has made further poor moves, for example removing matchday concessions – something ruled out of order by an FA panel. However, it has now established structured dialogue with the various groups, and has been outwardly positive about its intentions.

In the latest spat, the club cancelled a meeting of the recently established Supporters’ Committee following comments that it took as ‘threatening’ from the supporters’ trust.

This might seem rather heavy handed – after all, as the trust chair Geoff Bielby said, he was simply warning that things could easily deteriorate were things not to change. But the club has been – outwardly at least – willing to play ball, and sometimes diplomacy like this can be painstakingly slow.

Without commenting on the specifics of this issue, as I’m not close enough too it, it’s worth raising the wider issue about how important judgement is from both sides where there’s a contentious issue in a relationship between club and fans. Here are a couple of thoughts:

For the supporters’ group

stop_sign_clip_art

Before you reach for the comment button, pause: do you need to say it? In an age where social media, the availability of podcasting and the likes of Fan TV has liberated us all to become opinionated to the world about anything from the price of a pint to whether the club’s youth policy is effective enough, the skill in communication is often these days what you don’t say, rather than what you do.

For the club

stop_sign_clip_art

It’s very easy to come across as thin skinned and unable to deal with criticism. It’s damned hard when the media will play out every negative element of the relationship in front of your eyes, and you’re getting doorstepped for comment. But sometimes the best thing is to say nothing, don’t play it out in public, and maybe talk about it face-to-face. The media – especially locally – is under huge pressure to justify its existence, so undermined it is by the technological revolution we’re all part of.

There are constantly bumps in the road in all relationships. Football clubs are tricky places to execute perfection where such relationships are concerned, because, as I said in another recent piece, running a club can be a very precarious business. The pressures are huge, and the margins between success and failure, very, very thin. For organised supporters’ groups, they’re expected to be on the ball, out there, responding to important issues to their members and the wider fanbase, and they’re run almost exclusively by volunteers.

These aren’t golden rules. There are no absolutes. It’s almost always about judgement, and we’re all constantly under pressure to exercise it.

If you want to find out more about Structured Dialogue, or how to more effectively communicate with your supporters, contact me.

Norwich City sign Structured Dialogue agreement with supporters’ trust

More good news today, as Norwich City and the Canaries (Norwich City) Supporters’ Trust have signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MOM). I wrote about the relationship a few months ago on my blog.

This provides a more secure basis for Structured Dialogue between the two, and also more broadly, means supporters will be consulted on wider issues about club identity. The agreement means they’re the second club and supporters’ trust to do so recently, following Fulham’s agreement signed in December.

I reproduce the full article from the club’s website below:

Norwich City Football Club is delighted to have signed a historic memorandum of understanding with the Canaries Trust.

As part of the Club’s on-going commitment to consulting with and listening to its supporters, the memorandum is the latest positive step forward in its relationship with the Trust.

The document was signed by Norwich City Managing Director Steve Stone and Canaries Trust Chairman Robin Sainty at Carrow Road on Wednesday. Also in attendance were Mike Reynolds of the Canaries Trust, and Deborah Dilworth of Supporters Direct.

The new understanding sees the Club commit to meeting with the Trust regularly throughout each year and to consult with them – and other supporter groups – on any major decisions it makes which may affect the identity of the Club.

These meetings will include relevant senior figures from Carrow Road and Colney and will provide a framework for continued open dialogue between the Club and the Trust and its members.

Steve Stone commented: “We’re very pleased to have signed the memorandum of understanding with the Trust. The document serves to underline and formalise what is already a positive and proactive relationship and we look forward to that continuing in the future, as we work together with the Trust and all of our supporters for the long-term benefit of Norwich City.”

Trust Chairman Robin Sainty said: “Football today has become rather impersonal, with fans often struggling to make their voices heard in an industry ruled by money. One of the great things about this club is the fact that it is led by people who don’t live in ivory towers and today’s agreement builds on existing foundations to ensure that fans will continue not just to be heard, but listened to at Norwich City.”

If you want to find out more about Structured Dialogue, or how to more effectively communicate with your supporters, contact me

‘P’ is for ‘Politics’: Getting Structured Dialogue with supporters’ trusts right

‘Structured Dialogue’ has been woven into the language of football administration. We have rules (like those introduced by the EFL requiring it twice a year between clubs and fans), directives, guidance, best practice.

Clubs operate fans forums, fans parliaments, assemblies, ‘focus groups’ (a new term in football, which I’m not yet certain differs from fans forums) – and of course, every club in the top 92 clubs requires an SLO. All well and good. But there’s often a problem that affects all of these: The ‘political’ element. Stay awake back there!

A supporters’ trust (or more rarely these days, another independent supporters’ group) will very often seek a relationship of its own with the club. But it’s not uncommon to find that some clubs don’t want to give undue prominence to one group over another. From the club’s perspective, vying for their attention might be a number of regional groups (the more ‘traditional’ ones centred around travel or social events for example), internet-based ‘groups’ (in the loosest sense – often literally just a Facebook page or Twitter handle), or perhaps the new phenomenon of ‘Ultra’ groups (usually groups of younger fans, concerned more with atmosphere and issues around ‘genuine’ match experience). It can be difficult enough dealing with these as it is. It can appear more so if the group wanting the relationship expresses regular doubts about the owners – or even is in active opposition. I can completely understand why you wouldn’t want to give preference to the supporters’ trust over the rest, because if you do, you might get a negative response from the other groups.

It’s my experience that a lot of the other forms of supporters’ group are very happy to be managed through the more general forum – but don’t take that as read in every situation. Personal contact in all cases is still important in managing all your relationships with organisations. What is true is that the DNA of other groups means they’re not as concerned about the strategic or the ‘structural’. And the supporters’ trust can be a useful ally, and sounding board, if you approach them right. In a relationship that has matured and has been looked after, they can help you audit, and effectively operate as a sort of kite-mark for your decisions – like those at Norwich City for example (or Fulham – see further down).

It’s important to understand what actually motivates each group – and supporters’ trusts in particular. They are, in most cases, quite ‘political‘. In practical terms, they want to understand what goes on under the bonnet at a club: why strategic decisions are made the way they are, what the state of the finances are and how they impact on investment in the stadium or squad, what the plans are to grow the fanbase. Their legally compliant, formalised structure provides aims related to influencing the ownership and operation of the club, and their mindset – the culture they come from – emerged from an era when communication between clubs and fans other than match-related issues was virtually non-existent, save fans being told what was happening after the event, or the the club/directors being subject to protests in the car park when things went wrong.

Just pick up David Conn’s ‘The Beautiful Game: Searching for the Soul of Football’, or read Ian King’s 200% football blog. These are the sort of stories fans tell each other, part of what creates the grand ‘narrative’, the experience of following a club. This is the culture that you need to get to know before you should make a decision about how you’re going to respond to their request.

Dialogue isn’t just broadcasting

This is the point at which the meaning of the word ‘Dialogue’ really matters. Dialogue and forms of two-way communication with football supporters is a new phenomenon, and primarily, ‘Dialogue’ needs to be seen by the participants involved in it as ‘valuable and productive in itself’ (this comes from PR theorists Kent and Taylor. Drop me a line if you want to know more).

The secondary part is that Dialogue should ‘create the opportunity or potential for for changes of view’. It’s important to distinguish between the process – a valuable and productive exchange – and the potential output – changes of perspective. Yet football struggles with the first, and often doesn’t consider the second. For example, ‘Structured Dialogue’ takes place between Leagues and organised supporters’ groups, but the issue of controversial televised fixtures only seems resolved in a spirit contrary to what Dialogue means: https://www.dailystar.co.uk/sport/football/650483/Chelsea-Premier-League-Christmas-Eve-Everton-Arsenal-Liverpool-Man-Utd and here: https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/liverpool-supporters-head-protest-against-13702679.

It’s important to underline the essential point made above: that just because Dialogue occurs, it doesn’t mean that changes will – or should – occur. What is important first is the process of dialogue being valuable and productive.

Other companies and organisations struggle with anything other than ‘broadcast mode’, and football is no exception.

It’s also worth pointing out here that although football clubs do get a lot of bad press in this area, there are good examples (I’ve already profiled Millwall and Norwich, and will do more soon). It’s also worth reading Jim McNamara’s ‘Creating an Architecture of Listening in Organisations‘ (University of Technology Sydney). It shows you just how much other companies and organisations struggle with anything other than ‘broadcast mode’, and football is no exception. However, football needs to recognise that the uniqueness of the business calls for it to embrace meaningful Dialogue.

The $64,000 question is ‘are their some steps I can follow?’ Yes, provided you remember that Structured Dialogue is about the to-and-fro of relationships, so in one sense simple guidance in this area is about as likely as one set of relationship advice applying to all couples!

If you’re a club:

  1. Try not to fear sitting down and talking to a supporters’ trust. Face-to-face is better, but even the phone will do to start. How many times have you built up a problem with someone in your head, or maybe over email, only to find that when you talk, the problems dissolve and you can reach a common position or understanding?
  2. Remember that supporters’ trusts are often on a bit of a journey themselves. A good example is the Fulham Supporters’ Trust, which started out as a campaign to reverse the decision by then owner Mohammed al-Fayed to move the club out of their Thames riverside home. In a different era now, formal Structured Dialogue exists between the group and across most levels of the club – both owners and executives. Having spent time with CEO Alistair Mackintosh, he clearly understands the importance of this particular relationship acutely.

If you’re a supporters’ trust/group:

  1. Assume a minimal level of understanding on the part of those you meet (but don’t patronise or get frustrated with them!). As I’ve outlined, everyone doesn’t necessarily ‘get’ what you are, or even why you exist – especially if they’ve just come in. You might have owners or executives who are new to football, or who haven’t seen your kind of group before. You need to educate them as much as you do your potential members, journalists, or other people you want to have a relationship with.
  2. Don’t expect instant progress. Remember that football clubs, although they aren’t in all ways exceptional – as I outlined earlier, they do have their own complexities: they are very people-driven organisations, and those running them have lots of demands on their time. The actual football season can also be something of a pain, especially around transfer-window time, on a matchday, or at a time of changes in key personnel like coaches/managers. You’ll find they often operate at breakneck speed. Think about running down a hill with armfuls of crockery, trying not to drop anything. You’re halfway there!

If you’re a club looking to move your relationships on, a supporters group looking for advice on how to approach Structured Dialogue, or you want advice on how to generally communicate more effectively with your supporters, drop me a line.

 

No-one knows us: Millwall’s untold success story with supporters | Case Study

Working in the field of supporter communications and structured dialogue, the stories of failure aren’t hard to find, and writers like David Conn have told those better than I ever could. So I want to get out and find the good stories, the best practice. What’s good and what works, so that I can share that amongst those I advise and work with.

But Millwall? Am I serious? They’re widely known in the game for their excellence in community work, but fans? Yes. Millwall are in fact, and have been for some years, one of the untold success stories when it comes to Supporter Communications and Structured Dialogue. Where does it come from, how does it work, and why?

I first came across Millwall in this context about ten years ago, when they established the role of an elected director from the Millwall Supporters Club (MSC) on the board of the Millwall Holdings PLC – the company that owns and controls the club. It wasn’t long after US businessman John Berylson took control. Berylson is a Boston businessman, philanthropist and Red Sox baseball nut, and yes, a curious person to come to own what has been referred to as one of London’s ‘last working class’ football clubs. But in his ten years, although based on the other side of the Pond, he’s been a very present Chairman – always making a point of being seen around the ground when at matches, talking to supporters, not hidden away behind the glass front of the directors box. He’s been supportive financially of the club, only late last year converting another ten million pounds of loans to the club into shares. In recent years this has all happened when the club’s well publicised battle with the London Borough of Lewisham over the development of land around The New Den has been raging. It’s not as though they’ve spent their way to success either – they’ve spent more time in League One than not, and have patiently stuck by former Millwall hero, Neil Harris, who took them up last season.

Whilst of course Berylson clearly has a huge amount to do with the way they interact with supporters – having a majority owner and chairman who takes his role very seriously is very important – the team which oversees things day-to-day is critical. In that respect he and his board have appointed well. Both former CEO Andy Ambler – now Head of Professional Game Relations at The FA (who I interviewed last year for my Diploma in PR), and Steve Kavanagh, who I met for this feature, are thoughtful, knowledgeable, and experienced. Kavanagh worked for 11 years at Charlton, four at Southend United and has been at Millwall for a year. At Charlton, Kavanagh worked with the supporter director the club had for a number of years too, and he valued that role. He’s passionate about football, but most importantly, understands what the people and processes behind the noise and the numbers actually mean. It’s not simply about the bottom line, and it’s not solely about the eleven on the pitch. It’s about all the things that make it possible, and supporters are a central cog in that wheel.

For those not involved in running clubs themselves, it can often be forgotten that football can be rather breathless at times – sometimes an effective state of mild panic can dominate during the nine-month slog that is the football season, and calm can be hard to find. When a team hasn’t won in a few matches, regardless of what the state of the budget or the injury list, some fans go into ‘blame’ mode, and it’s then that a calm hand helps. As Kavanagh said, “It’s a sport where two people watching the same game can emerge with a completely different view of what happened’. He knows that the fans care, knows they want the best, but sometimes he needs to arbitrate between the different points of view, ameliorate, calm nerves. It’s clear that the ‘fan on the board’ role is one of the ways he helps to manage that, but it’s also about personal contact with supporters. As with some of the best practitioners – Paul Barber at Brighton, Alistair Mackintosh at Fulham, and former Sheffield Wednesday Chairman Lee Strafford, and like his Chairman – he seeks that contact.

Millwall are one of the untold success stories when it comes to supporter-communications and structured dialogue.

Clubs can also sometimes eschew having to deal with one or other supporters’ group, but it’s always better to be prepared to talk – even if the relationship isn’t as formalised as that at Millwall. One thing that can be a problem at clubs however is the sheer politics of it all (something which I’ll be dealing with in another post later this week). A big problem for voluntary committees is becoming unfocused, and for there to be people who seem to like being involved for its own sake, and little else. Indeed, a common complaint from many committee and board members of groups I know is too many people not contributing to the work of the organisation. But in that respect the MSC appear quite mature. In November last year, the committee opted to dissolve itself and reform, in part also to assert a greater financial independence from the club as well as refresh things. In terms of a structured relationship, the onus, understandably, is often on the club, but it’s also important for the most organised, largest (and usually, the most representative) group of supporters to be self-aware, and prepared to do things to remain relevant and energised.

Knowing the inner-workings of football clubs, what makes them tick, the pressures, the pinch-points, is necessary if you’re going to create the best solutions for other clubs. Football clubs are inherently fascinating organisations, with so many moving parts, so many people to keep happy, involved, content.

What Millwall are showing when it comes to how supporters are integrated into the life of the club are key, basic building blocks: respect for the role of the supporter as one of the most important interactions they have, and some patience and time for what they need to do.

Many have made their mind up what Millwall is, but under the bonnet, there’s a lot of good work going on to ensure that, when times are good, bad or just a bit mid-table, the supporters feel part of the club, and find it responsive. When Steve Kavanagh talks of the club belonging to the fans, regardless of who owns it, I sense that he – and his team – really mean it.

Lessons from Millwall

Commitment – recognising time and effort has to be put into the relationship(s) with supporters to make them work. Supporters appreciate this.

Structure – being prepared to tweak or change the structure to make it work for the supporters and the club.

Stable ownership – This can matter a lot. It’s less about whether there is a constant stream of success, but more about whether things are – or are perceived to be – stable.

Leeds United’s new badge: what’s all the fuss about?

Leeds United have released their new club badge for next season, and it’s caused the predictable storm. Yet they’re the club of Don Revie who famously changed their kit colour to all white in 1960, and they’ve had some fairly radical changes to the crest in the past.

So what’s the fuss? There’s a petition with north of 8,000 signatures already, and a storm brewing online. It’s a good question. It could be that it’s all about opposition to modernity, as someone has already suggested. Of course it is, you might say: not only are football fans a sensitive, quite conservative bunch, but Leeds United is still one of the biggest clubs in the country. They attract comment.

Except, peeling back all of this, regardless of who this is, it still looks like a mistake. The video announcing the move is a good example of the modern promotional video in football. Portraying the raw emotion of football, combined with just the right amount of players, legends, kids and old people. Never forget the kids and old people.

But watching it just leaves me feeling that they’ve made a half-decent promotional video  is all, one you might show to a potential sponsor or partner. The key phrase here is ‘consultation’. They say they’ve consulted ‘10,000+ fans’ – probably about a third or so of their average home gate, and I’m in no position to question that. But what actual role did these fans play in the process? Was there effectively a vote of those 10,000? Was it 10,000 in total consulted in some form or another? Were they asked for their views on what Leeds meant to them, or were they asked if the arm-on-the-chest would make a good crest? Having overseen rebrands, and carried out consultations for rebrands in football, it depends on a lot of things, particularly the questions you ask, and how you guide, or don’t guide, the conversation.

‘Consultation’ is something the club has made a big thing about here, but given the results, which to me just don’t look very ‘football’, and certainly don’t look very ‘Leeds’, I’m beginning to wonder what exactly they meant.

Does The FA rulebook need a tweak for the sake of supporters?

Stories of disputes between football clubs and their supporters are legion, from those catalogued by Amanda Jacks over at @FSF_Faircop; ticketing and other matchgoing issues on a club-by-club basis through supporters’ groups; or the work done by Supporters Direct on deeper, more structural issues.

Many problems often arise because one or both sides don’t, won’t or can’t reach at least some level of understanding – if not compromise. So is it worth trying something new by looking at the place of supporters in the actual rules that govern football?

As you’d expect, football has a set of rules to govern the game, and those rules also cover the actual people, the relationships and resultant disputes that invariably happen between various parties on and off the pitch. To enable this to be done properly, those subject to these rules are explicitly identified. These are known as the ‘Participants’. In England, The FA rulebook identifies a ‘Participant’ as: ‘An Affiliated Association, Competition, Club, Club Official, Intermediary, Player, Official, Manager, Match Official, Match Official observer, Match Official coach, Match Official mentor, Management Committee Member, member or employee of a Club and all such persons who are from time to time participating in any activity sanctioned either directly or indirectly by The Association’ (FA Handbook, Page 95, A. Constitution and Administration of the Association, 2. Definition and Interpretation) As we can see, there are a much wider group of interested parties when it comes to football than just those involved in the playing of it for 90 minutes – players, referees, managers, coaches.

If someone in this group breaks the rules – a player or a manager getting sent off, a club or FA county official speaking out of turn – they can be brought to book and made to account for those actions, and be fined or banned. This means that disputes or contraventions of the rules can in theory at least, be resolved in a straightforward fashion.

Beyond that group, there are others who are commonly described as ‘stakeholders’ (groups who have a ‘stake’ in an organisation – i.e. those who are affected by or can affect it.) This is a familiar term used very widely across industries and sectors, and in this case supporters, local communities, and some types of commercial partners would be included in this group. (I would class most commercial partners, suppliers or others as simply having a ‘transactional’ relationship with football – they provide money for their name/product & reputation to be associated with the game or a club, and don’t really have a role beyond it.) Of course, just to confuse everyone further, everyone in the ‘Participants’ group should also be understood more generally as ‘Stakeholders’!

My original interest in this area came from a dispute between one, at the time very well known Chairman of a sizeable Championship club, and its supporters’ trust – which he was very suspicious of. Indeed, a colleague went as far as to enquire whether it would be possible to invoke one or other of the rules of the game to deal with the problem. It wasn’t.

Over the years, as the role of supporters has grown, and the idea of not involving them in the discussion, of consulting them, seems increasingly out of step. People in the game have talked more and more of them as vital to the very fabric of the game we know. Both Supporters Direct and The FSF now have a representative each at FA Council level, which is only a good thing.

You might argue that supporters stop being significant below a certain level. In terms of finances, yes, it’s true they’re only really contributors (because of the need to pay salaries and expenses) from about Step 4 in the pyramid (Northern Premier/Isthmian/Southern 1st divisions) – at a stretch some clubs at the top of Step 5. Beyond that, of course supporters exist, but they are often counted in their handfuls, and are as much volunteers or officials as anything else. But this appears to rest on the idea that every Participant is relevant at every level, and aren’t the 92 top clubs very specific – and highly influential (represented by the ‘Professional Game Board’). Or to some extent the FA Counties (represented by the ‘National Game Board’). So why not supporters?

Another argument is that supporters don’t ‘participate’ – they watch. Except supporters make the professional and upper-echelons of the non-league game the sport that it is; without them it would simply be lots of people playing football in otherwise empty fields or stadia. And you wouldn’t need the Professional Game Board either.

It could be argued that the same exception for every distinct group in the game should be made (BAME, women, the disabled.) It’s a good question, but isn’t it the case that representation is important from these groups to ensure that those individuals who participate are given equal access and treatment, rather than being a strictly separate class of ‘Participant’ – at least in terms of the rulebook?

Clubs, The FA, The Premier League, EFL, and National League are constantly seeking ways to ‘engage’ with and involve supporters in a meaningful way, and it might just be that this can be enhanced with a ‘structural’ solution, not just a ‘policy’ one – as important as that is.

I’m not seeking to establish every characteristic of the role supporters might play as a Participant, or indeed, how they would be represented in that respect (i.e. as individuals, supporters’ trusts or national bodies). Perhaps on-pitch matters might be a bit of a problem (though consulting them on, for example, the idea of ‘sin bins’ and whether they’d enhance the game or not from a supporter perspective would be done more efficiently and as an automatic part of the process, which I can’t personally see as a disadvantage). However, aside from technicalities, in the structural sense I can’t see much else that would a problem if supporters became a Participant, as opposed to their slightly muddied current role as arguably a sort of ‘enhanced’ stakeholder – at least at FA council level.

It would make disputes and problems almost certainly more resolvable, and would I suggest, reduce their incidence as well over time as they would be ‘in the room’, as opposed to half-in-half-out. We might well see the eventual emergence of a more naturally collaborative style of governing the game, and it’s hard to see how that’s a bad thing.

Over to you…

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